Anxiety and Musical Form

My gf asked me why I don’t blog about having anxiety. There’s a few reasons I haven’t mentioned it much of late. Part of the reason for this is that while it shapes a certain amount of my experience, I absolutely do not want it to become a point of identity. Partly, I’d rather talk about things that are more interesting, like music. (There’s nothing quite so boring as other people’s health problems.) And maybe most importantly, I’m embarrassed about it.
But yeah, something about my fight-or-flight response is not working correctly and I get panic attacks.
I’m going to get a referral for CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy, which has been shown to be effective. I kind of know what leads to them. If I’m stressed or not eating right or especially if I’m short on sleep, I’m much more likely to get them. I read some place that they normally last about half an hour and I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that if I wait and take deep breaths, they tend to go away.
In case you’ve never had a panic attack, (lucky you), I shall attempt to describe it. For me, it is what it sounds like, a sudden stab of panic. You know when you go out and you’re nearly to the tube station and think, ‘oh my god, did I leave the stove on?!’ It’s like that, but I tend to think maybe I have cancer or something. While one can turn around and go home and check if they’ve forgotten a pan of beans bubbling away, one can’t do that with a sudden fear of dread disease. So I try to talk myself out of it, but can get into a loop: ‘I’m fine because of X. But what about Y?’ Repeat for several minutes. This is very annoying. Especially when I know I’m in a loop. I know I’m being irrational. But I can’t seem to shake it. Because what about Y??! And maybe it just goes away quietly, or maybe I start shaking and phone NHS Direct.
What sets these off? Sometimes it’s because something is actually wrong with me. And, indeed, when I said I phone NHS Direct, this is actually not entirely true – I have a stone in one of my spit glands. It hurts occasionally and once in a great while, it blocks something and swells a bit. Eventually, somebody is going to remove it. But anyway, one day, before it was x-rayed, my neck swelled slightly and I saw it in the mirror and went into a panic. Sure, the dentist said he thought it was probably a stone, but what if it’s actually a terrible infection that’s spread to something important in my neck before it turns into blood poisoning or gets into my brain and might kill me by morning. (‘I’m fine because if I had a horrible infection, I would have a fever. But what about my swollen neck?’ Repeat for several minutes.) It was a Friday evening, so I phoned NHS Direct and they said it sounded like something that might happen with a spit gland stone and if it hadn’t gone down by Monday morning, I should ring my dentist. This was exactly the calm reassurance I wanted from the NHS. (God bless the NHS.) Then, unexpectedly, they started reading a list of diseases that might be associated with swollen necks. Glandular fever. (Mononucleosis to Americans.) ‘No, I already had that.’ Mumps. ‘I’m vaccinated.’ Meningitis. ‘Doesn’t that usually have a fever?’ I was starting to get alarmed. The woman on the phone was starting to get annoyed. She just had a script to read through (I guess so nobody can say they weren’t warned?) and didn’t want to be interrupted. Lupus. ‘Wait, what? How do I know if I have lupus??’ I hadn’t even considered this possibility. The woman sighed in an irritated manner. I have not rung the NHS Direct since.
Most often what sets off a panic attack is that I’m trying to ignore some emotion I’m having. Something has upset me. I don’t want to deal with it. I tell myself I’m fine and carry on. And then: ‘Wait, what if that cat I just pet has rabies?’ Sometimes, I can identify what emotion or thought I’m trying to nullify and go deal with it and be fine. Often it’s just some really small erasure. Very often, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it. Some part of my brain has intercepted my experience and tried to overwrite it and I haven’t even noticed. This is what I hope CBT can help with, since I really want to stop doing that. I mean, I don’t like having negative emotions, but they’re vastly preferrable to panic attacks.
Also, these erased emotions are sometimes important ones, but often are fairly small. So let’s say I’ve read something that reminds me of LGBT-phobia in schools and its affecting and I just don’t feel like thinking about that at the moment, so there’s an erasure. ‘What if that friendly cat is actually rabid?’ I try to ignore the thought, so there’s another avoidance. ‘I am feeling panicked about this cat and this is stupid, so I must try to hide it or else everyone will know I’m crazy.’ And thus something small builds.

Musical Forms

I did my undergraduate music education sort of the wrong way around. I didn’t expect to want to get a degree in it, so I started by taking all the upper division classes and seminars because they were most interesting. So I learned about how John Cage rejected all the old way of doing things that were not useful any more in the 20th century. Music theory is a old and unneeded! I accepted this at face value. (Never mind how a lot of minimalists, who I loved, worked a lot with harmony.) Then, after I decided I wanted to get a music degree, I had to take all the first year classes in counterpoint, history and all of this stuff I had already rejected. I insisted that John Cage had said it was useless. My teachers disagreed, but since they were the same ones who had told me a few months earlier that this was the stuff of the past, I felt their position was somewhat weakened. Anyway, I graduated, having learned as little traditional stuff as possible.
It wasn’t long after graduation that I became aware that perhaps I had been overzealous in my embracing of Cagean values. I wanted to write something harmonic, but all I actually knew how to do were chorales and I didn’t even know most of the rules for them. How to structure anything was a mystery. I know that forms existed and they had names, but what those meant, I had no idea.
I got to grad school (a decade ago) and somebody commented that everything I wrote was in sonata form. I had no idea. Maybe I should mix this up a bit more? I didn’t know any other forms.
Obviously the thing to do about this gap in my knowledge was to feel deep shame and attempt to hide it. So rather than read a book or ask a teacher, I just hoped nobody noticed how I was nowhere near good enough to actually be qualified to be in an MA program. (To be fair, I was REALLY busy trying to learn every other thing that everybody around me already seemed to know.)
At some point, I finally learned that while there are named forms that exist, form is arbitrary. It’s just any structure you can use to make sense of things. It can sometimes be implied by the material, or it can be decided in advance. Some Cage pieces are all about form. They are vessels into which you can pour any material and the structure somehow causes the material to sound better. Forms are like that. I don’t feel worried about them any more and while my classical vocabulary is still a bit lacking, I’m not overly concerned about this. Anyway, since I moved to England, I don’t even know note names any more, so not knowing how to organise a minuet is somewhat less important than not being able to remember the duration of a semi-quaver or a minim.
If you are hoping for some insight: The important thing to remember about structures is that they fix musical problems. This is how to write a piece of music: Put your material into a structure, then get the ending perfect, then get the beginning nice, then do the middle bits. Then write some glue to hold everything together. If your middle section is supposed to be 5 minutes long but is getting dull by minute three, you can either make it shorter or subdivide it – so instead of being one long thing, it’s got an ABA or ABC structure within it, so it moves between related ideas. That is to say, add some stuff.
As I recall, Cage didn’t talk much about the importance of structure directly, but he implied the hell out of it. Lecture on Nothing is nothing but structure. This is much more vital than the ‘ignore harmony’ that I first got from my youthful introduction. I was over-eager to be freed from a prison I’d never even been in. But aren’t we all? Especially when we’re young.

What’s the Connection?

This post is in AB form, with a small coda.

I’m probably sharing too much

(Note: I posted this and then decided I was perhaps being too dramatic and took it back down, but in the mean time, it got syndicated and a bunch of people saw it anyway, so here it is again.)
When I was in my first semester at Wesleyan, I used to worry I would start crying in class. The reason for this worry was that my mother had died less than a year previously. I knew that my friend Angela was planning on playing some music from the Brother Where Art Thou sound track and some Hank Williams and I had played these things by my mother’s bedside because they seemed to give her some comfort. But, by the time it was Angela’s term to give a presentation, I was on more solid ground.
Two years later, when I moved to Paris, I worried I would start screaming on the metro. I had anxiety, from several factors including gender, being foreign, normativity, etc etc etc and I didn’t know that people with anxiety do not actually just start screaming. Nor do we die from our chests pounding. I just wait and it passes. So I never did scream.
I don’t know what I’m worried about now, exactly, but lately, I often find I’ve been holding my breath. I feel dizzy more than is typical. I’ve always had a tendency to not quite be in my body, but now I sort of feel like I’m not quite in my head and that things might turn very white and blank. Which is similar to thinking I might pass out, sort of. But I think that this too will pass without coming to pass.
Reality or whatever seems to be something like a string or a thread, but I don’t think it’s something I could let go of. I think it’s tied to my wrist like a balloon on a child at the zoo. So I’m not worried like I was in Connecticut or France. But when people ask me how I’m doing and I say, “ok,” I’m not entirely certain if that’s actually the truth. But it might be. In time, it will be.
. . .
I realized two things recently. One is that I’ll always be crazy. I’m not screaming-on-the-metro crazy, but this tendency or whatever I’ve got is something I can manage, but not something that will evaporate away.
I was learning to deal with it by trying to acknowledge and even share my emotions instead of trying not to have them. And then, after that, trusting to fate. But there is no fate. Things don’t happen for any kind of reason. We live until we die and that’s it. There’s no plan. There’s no meaning. You just carry on until you don’t anymore. Everything we have to sort of smooth over the abyss and make it seem nice is just a human invention. There’s no soul. There’s no god. There’s no plan. It’s just suffering with the occasional respite. And that’s all.
I’d like to carry on as long as possible, but the emptiness of it all . . . is kind of a lot. It’s a large realisation to get used to.


It has recently been exposed that drug companies have been aware for quite some time that drugs like zoloft have no effect on mild to moderate depression. It performs the same as a placebo. Well . . . that explains a lot. I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not. I took it for weeks before it started “helping” and then it only helped very slowly, while I still endured panic attacks and ate many many antacids in a single day for weeks and weeks. And it explains why I didn’t really start feeling ok until I started to transition.
Several months ago, I read that the pharmacy where I got my Zoloft had a markup on it of, like, 900%. I should have paid around $100- $150, but instead I paid a thousand. For the first bottle. I had to pay for three different American doctors to get the drugs coming. And doctors are the only thing in America that’s not cheap. And I had to keep up with this in Europe and go see doctors there and pay for prescriptions there. Basically, the medical industry made thousands of dollars off of me and gave me something with all the many benefits of a placebo. I should have just taken St. John’s Wort.
Because while Zoloft helps as much as a placebo, it has all the downsides of a real drug. It didn’t do much for my panic attacks, but it did alter my brain chemistry. But not in a way that helped me. It made me stupid and gave me nothing in return. Now, it’s giving me the many joys of withdrawl. Because that part is real. The part where your risk of suicide goes way up and the part where you feel like shit if you miss a dose or change your dose. So thousands of dollars plus shitty health effects. . ..
I mean, I guess there’s a silver lining. I felt like I really needed help and they gave me fake pills. So it was me that made me better. I did it. Hooray for me.
I hadn’t “needed” the pills since I started to transition. So I started cutting my dose. I figured that if I noticed a change for the worse, I could start again. But I haven’t noticed a change at all. Except for a week or so of crappy withdrawl at every decrease.
I don’t want to blame my doctors. They didn’t know. They didn’t exactly send me off to talk therapy. Well, the Netherlands very generously put me on an 8 month long waiting list, so it’s not like I got no kind of support of any kind while I was freaking out. But the drug companies knew and suppressed the data. And the pharmacy didn’t know that the drugs they were selling me were crap, but they sure as hell knew how much they were charging me. (And they knew that people don’t go around comparison shopping for drugs they think they really need because they’re in a crisis).
I want my fucking money back. I want a letter of apology. I want some fucking therapy. I want a drug company executive to come to my door and personally say ze’s sorry. Then I want hir to slowly learn to deal with the side effects of taking the drug as ze ramps up to the max dose and slowly combat the withdrawl symptoms as ze cuts back to zero. And then I want to kick hir in the shins several times for good measure. And I think every other deceived person should get the same – to kick an executive in the shins.
I was sick. They took my money and gave me shit while I was sick. I want somebody to go to jail. It’s not like they just charged me a lot for a sugar pill. They charged me a lot for a pill that causes an alarmingly high percentage of takers to become suicidal. They charged me a lot for something that made me feel sicker. They charged me a lot and I was patient while I waited and waited and waited to get a “high” enough dose and feel ok – and during that time, that’s all I had. Well, that and my very very patient girl friend. And my chiropractor. She claimed she could cure me by pressing on the sides of my head, but at least I knew that was bullshit.
Anyway, I took the last pill of it I’m ever going to take two nights ago – because the withdrawl of cutting it down by half when I got here had worn off an acceptable amount. And if anybody comes to me with a class action lawsuit thingee, I’m so onboard.

Do unto yourself as you would unto others

One time, I was tooling around Oakland and these two guys jumped on this other guy and started beating on him. They took off and left the other guy lying bloody in the street. This was before everybody had cell phones, but somebody passing by had one and so the cops were soon there. Nobody jumped in the middle heroically or anything, but they did call 911. And if I saw something like that again, I’d be on the phone right away, talking to the cops. For the most part, I’m not fan of the police, but they do have their uses.

And you, if you were someplace and you saw somebody about to kill another person or hurt them, you’d call 911 (or your country’s equivalent) too. I mean, even if it was somebody you didn’t really like, you might not want to jump in the middle, but you’d make the phone call. It’s the right thing to do. And, I mean, it’s not so hard to pick up a hone. You don’t have to give your name. You just have to say where you’re at and that somebody there is in trouble. You would do that, right? It’s a moral imperative.
I don’t know what it feels like to be in an agitated state. I’ve been depressed, anxious, closeted, etc, but I’ve never been bipolar and I hope it stays that way. Agitated states suck. People who are in them feel as crappy and awful and unbelievable deadenedly sad as somebody with bad depression, but with energy. Like how somebody might feel on a day they couldn’t get out of bed, but they can get out of bed and move around, because they’ve got the stamina to do it. Feeling that low and having energy to take action is a dangerous situation. A friend of mine (who I neglected to ask if I could plagiarize) describes it as feeling like you leg was caught in a bear trap. You’d do anything to escape, even gnawing off your own leg.
But if you had a cell phone, you wouldn’t gnaw off your own leg, you would call 911. And if you saw somebody so trapped, you’d call for help. And if you saw somebody about to kill somebody else, you’d call for help. And if the guy whose about to get killed is you and the guy whose about to do the killing is you, it’s still the same situation. One where you have to call for help.
So I don’t know what it’s like. I’ve never been there. But I’m in the arts and so I know a lot of bipolar people. The suicide rates for bipolar folks is alarmingly high. I’m ignorant, but as your friend, I want to remind you to call 911 in an emergency. Even if you’re going to do it anyway. Even if you don’t like the guy getting killed. Even if you don’t want to be saved.

the most futile blog post ever

Ok, so I used to have anxiety and that’s mostly vanished, thank gods, (although my first self-inflicted T shot this morning did leave me feeling kind of freaked). It made me really suck at risk assessment. I never knew if I was actually in peril or not. Danger could be lurking around every turn. I might be unprepared!
I got very concerned about being prepared. Not just having an earthquake kit, but also being mentally prepared. In a crisis, you can’t sit down and think out carefully what’s coming. You have to just react. You need to already know how to respond when something gets thrown at you. So I used to sit and think about things that might happen and how I would deal with them. I would visualize myself taking steps to respond. I practiced it in my head in case I was called to do it in real life.
I don’t even remember now what I was worrying about, but if it happened, I bet I would (still?) be on top of it. This isn’t a completely crazy idea. It’s the whole basis for fire drills. Certain dangers are so unlikely that they’re not worth worrying about. But if you live in a tsunami zone, you know the evacuation route. Because when you get the 2 minute’s notice that a tsunami has just passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, you don’t want to be looking at an elevation map trying to figure out where to go.
I don’t want to be presumptuous or anything, but some of you live in tsunami zones or earthquake zones or flood zones. And having a mental drill once in a while might be a reasonable thing to consider doing. Which is to say that if you feel like you’re in a bear trap, I don’t think you’ll be recalling and following along with my moral reasoning about calling for help. But maybe for some of you, occasional mental fire drills make sense?
You folks all have shrinks and meds and people who know way more about stuff than me. I’ve got virtually nothing to contribute to this conversation. I really hate losing people and I want to feel like there’s something that can be done. That I can do. Something to keep the folks that I care about around longer. And it’s as futile as demanding that you stop smoking and start eating oat bran. Because that’s not up to me and I don’t know what I’m talking about.
fucking hell

Book Review: Strong Imagination

Before I begin, I want to share that the reason that I have time to type a book review is that my mixing board is not broken at all. You may recall that I mentioned earlier that my synth got battered in shipping. This caused some of the jacks to get bent so they weren’t making good contact, which is easily fixable. So all is well.

Last spring, when I was whining about being on a really long waiting list to see a shrink, my friend Vivian gave me a book called Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature by David Nettle, which explores a link between insanity and creativity, just as the name implies. Nettle makes a convincing case regarding the nature and cause of madness. To briefly summarize: madness of all forms has both a genetic and an environmental component. In cases where of identical twins, when one becomes schizophrenic, the other has a 50% of becoming so also. This is a much higher risk than the general population, but still only half. Factors that can push people over the edge include divorce, death of a family member, social isolation (say, from moving far away) and basically everything else in my life that’s happened to me since 2002. I really like this part of the book because it makes me feel like I’m super together for not being more crazy.
Ok, since going mad is a huge problem, why do these genes persist in the population? Well, that twin who doesn’t go mad is likely to do very well in life. People who have increased risk for insanity tend to excel, especially in creative persuits. He then broke down mental illness by profession. Poets are just nuts. Alas, for poets. Next in line are musicians, especially composers. And it goes through all the creative fields and then into more practical ones.
The author sees two primary classes of mental illness. One is schizophrenia, and the other is a polar disorder. What he means by polar disorder is people whose emotions tend to run out of balance. So he’s grouping depressives and bipolar people together and argues how they’re related on a neurotransmitter level. He claims that depressives also have periods of peaks, but they don’t get as out of control as people who are bipolar. While schizoid personality types are good for creative thinking, the periods of peaks (short of mania) for people with polar disorders tend to be good for getting work done. He specifically mentions composers here. Especially in the old days of ensemble writing, before MIDI realizations, composers would have to write things and then wait months or years to hear it. A sane person doesn’t go into work that’s so thankless and so short of rewards. Most people need positive stimuli more often to keep working on something.
He never mentions anxiety disorder, aside from in his list of mental illness by profession, but from other reading, I know it’s strongly linked to depression and the same drugs are used to treat it. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced the highs of creative energy that he described. I do know that I tend to be overly pleased with myself. I always thought of this as some sort of personality flaw, but I guess it’s essential to my line of work. Also, the way I approach composition is more praise-seeking than the old way. What better way to get positive feedback than through commissions? I get a vote of confidence when people ask for one and then (so far) specific praise for the output that I deliver. And while I hate performing, I do it anyway because I like the attention. I’ve written pieces of music performed by others and then sat in the audience and listened. Fewer people come up to talk to me afterwards. And, most importantly, this does not get me chicks like performing does. But more on that last part in a bit.
So Nettle makes a convincing case that the genes associated with certain types of mental illness are also correlated with creative output, which explains why they persist in the population despite their huge liability. Appreciation of creative endeavors is a human universal. In every society that has ever existed, poetry and music have been considered important. Anthropologists have never found a group of people without music and without poetry. Even in societies where survival is difficult and everyone works at acquiring food (ie, no specialization of labor), poetry and music are valued. And people who are good at poetry or music get high prestige. Even if they have a bad time of it for a while, people will donate food. Creative output is essentially human, much more so than using tools or the other ways we’ve sought to set ourselves apart form other animals.
Nettle then goes on to ask a much deeper question: why do humans value creativity? Here, he turns to evolutionary theory. Male peacocks have crazy tails. You’ve seen them. It requires a huge number of extra resources to keep those tails looking good. A male with an especially nice looking tail has to be able to get a lot more food. One with a scraggly looking tail is not faring as well nutritionally. And that’s why, the theory goes, peahens (aka, the female of the species) find the tail so sexy. this male is really good at feeding himself and staying healthy. She thinks, if I breed with him, there’s a good chance my offspring will be healthy and able to feed themselves too. Therefore, the tail is sexy because it’s a drag on the bird. It’s inefficiency is what makes it such a great indicator of success. And it shows off values that are important to the survival needs of peacocks.
Humans don’t have much in the way of plumage, but we do have really big brains compared to other animals. And big brains are very important to us as a species. So somebody who is creative not only has a really big brain, but they have excess to waste on poetry and music or other creative output. Somebody who can tell a good story is thus not only smart enough to survive, but they’ve got brains to spare. I’m not explaining this as well as Nettle did, and, indeed, it’s a little slippery and weird, inherently. Animals find excess to be sexy, specifically excess that’s tied to some essential part of their species. So for humans, this is thinking power. It’s important to remember that this is statistical. You might find your pulse increase for accountants (yes, I know, it’s a stereotype – Charles Ives invented the actuary table), but statistically, creative output is one of the things that people consider when looking for a mate.
I say “people.” Nettle says “women.” Going back to peacocks – they don’t mate for life. A male can go after as many peahens as will have him. His investment in the next generation is very small, so he doesn’t have to be picky. People, though, invest quite a bit more in the next generation. Most people in the world practice monogamy. (Even in societies that allow polygamy, most people in it have only one mate.) I read several years ago a theory that early humans tended to mate for about two years if they didn’t have a kid. after that, they tend to move on. this was valuable behavior as they seemed to be infertile with each other. If they had a kid, they would tend to stay together until the kid was 7 years old. At that point, a kid doesn’t require as many resources. Giving birth is a much higher investment on the part of a woman than men’s part in conception, but 7 years of monogamy means that they’re both very strongly invested in the child. So the mother invests more resources, but not that much more.
Think of that movie March of the Penguins. the males and females look pretty much alike. The males didn’t have any special plumage. But both parents had a nearly equal part in taking care of the kid. Both of them had to be extremely strong to reproduce and both of them had to be completely dedicated to their one offspring. A female could only lay one egg and a male could only keep one egg warm. therefore, their contribution was more or less equal. So when they were searching for mates, they’re both looking for somebody strong and healthy. Any plumage that the males developed would be equally important on the females. they both need to be able to march out, find food, march back, feed the kid, etc.
But, alas, Nettle is trapped in the male plumage theory. As dubious proof of the essenitaly male nature of creativity, he has a graph of gallery shows for male and female painters in the first half of the 20th century. I wish this was a joke, but it’s actually in the book and he appears to be serious about it. He does acknowledge the role of sexism, but brushes it aside. However, he would have been hard pressed to find a graph more influenced by sexism. For an example, Frieda Kahlo, who was awesome and had an incredible amount of output, didn’t get a solo show until near the end of her life. She was an international celebrity before anybody even thought to give her a solo show. Her work now is considered iconic and is extremely popular, but the sale price of her painting is still much lower than other male artists with less fame and popular appeal, and she’s on display in fewer museums than one would expect. She is not at all an isolated case, but rather just one of the most blatant. If Nettle had looked up a graph for white vs African American shows, he would have found similar data. Having established creativity as a human universal, it would be stupid and incorrect to argue racial difference based on such a graph. But here he does it with sex differences.
Ok, fine, there are sex differences in other species and there are some sex differences in humans too. But humans have nearly equal fertility investments in child rearing, so sex differences should be much less. Furthermore, peahens don’t have fancy tails. If it were the case that creativity was an essentially male persuit, there would be no genetic advantage in giving women the dangerous personality types associated with creativity. They would get none of the reward and bear none of the burden. Indeed, since personality types and creativity are so closely associated, the rate of male vs female insanity should indicate the rate of creative potential. And it’s very near the same. (Women are more likely than men to have a polar disorder.)
Quick, name a female sex symbol! Madonna! What does she do? She sings! How many female sex symbols are creative? Singers, dancers, actors! It should be completely obvious that male heterosexuals are as captivated by creative talent as straight women. (And queer folks having kids value this also.) Only blinding levels of sexism could obscure this.
I’m really tired of folks trying to say that composing is inherently, biologically male. The arts are human. Any attempt to assign them to gender is misguided and silly – or it would be silly if it weren’t so dangerous. And the lengths that women go to in order to create, fighting systems specifically put in place to keep them out, should emphasize the universality of creativity. Given the obstacles preventing women from getting gallery shows in the first half of the 20th century, the fact that there are any at all seems to imply a possibility that women have more creative capacity than men. I don’t think this is the case. I think the higher rate of depression in women is environmental, caused by things like barriers to creative recognition. I think the struggles past women have gone through to get their work out in the world is testament to the human spirit.
So, all in all, Nettle makes a pretty good argument, despite being a sexist ass who needs to revise some of the last chapters. He also gives advice to folks to try to stay sane. A personality type at risk to insanity can be helpful, but actual insanity is not. People who tend to succeed are organized and hard working (alas for me). Hard work is a greater part of creative success than other factors. So don’t feel bad about your mental illness. Work hard, get help if and when you need it. Poets are sexy.

Great moments in tuba performance

During the third part, a piece broke off of my tuba. I managed to reattach it before the 4th part, but when I started playing again, I was about a quarter step out of tune. During the rehearsal, the composer – not a student but a visiting artist, known and respected in California – had worked with me on the tuning, specifically because he didn’t want the fourth part to be out of tune. I tried lipping it up, but my god I was flat. Maybe I was on the wrong note? Maybe I was lost? The ensemble was getting thinner and thinner as the pitch of the piece dropped until it was me, the piano and the basses. I got flustered. My heart raced. I was sitting on stage in front of all of the composers and a good portion of the sonologists. Take deep breaths. My god, I’m having a panic attack on stage and I can;t play my part. Normally, I like playing because I specifically don’t get tweaky, but this is a panic attack in front of everybody while holding a tuba which is being held together by soggy gaffing tape. I stopped playing until the final section. The composer did not smile at me after the piece. I came home and drank.

I’m on a waiting list to see a shrink. Anxiety is treatable. Not with meds, but with talk therapy. Six to eight weeks and it’s gone. this is considerably longer than I’ve been waiting. If they keep me waiting long enough, I can start all over again when I move in the fall.
I can’t decide if the way to deal with tuba problems and stage fright is to take the tuba out busking this weekend or to throw the goddamned thing into a canal;

Gender Therapy in the Low Lands

I’ve been putting off posting about this for a long while, so I’m hazy on the details. But how many Americans can give a first hand account of gender therapy in the Netherlands? I feel a duty to post. This kind of meanders into TMI a bit, though. Be warned.

Ok, so when I last spoke of my therapy issues, I’d seen a regular shrink who wasn’t sure what to do with me and who did not speak very fluent English. (I want to clarify that I’m not criticizing anyone when I say they don’t speak English well. It’s not like I speak Dutch well, which is the language of the land. When I mention that somebody doesn’t have high English skills, it’s just to clarify that communication was not overly clear. This is a sub-optimal situation to have with a shrink.) She asked me about going to see the gender specialists at the university in Amsterdam. There was back and forth. Finally, she referred me to a center in Voorburg.
Several days later, a letter came in the mail giving me a date and time for an appointment. Fortunately, my assigned time did not conflict with my class schedule. I biked the several kilometers to the PsyQ building there. PsyQ is some sort of organization that deals with people’s mental issues. I don’t know if they’re public or private or some mixture thereof. People seem to largely have private insurance in this country. Anyway, so I showed up and walked through an automatic door to an entry alcove. There was a large glass window with a woman behind it and a microphone. There was no opening in the window at all. It was solid glass (or whatever). I had to show ID to the woman behind the glass and also present my appointment letter. She pressed a button and the automatic glass sliding door to the lobby opened.
Of course, they deal with crazy people, so they need security to protect themselves. From people like me.
The woman took my insurance card (they only reimburse and don’t cover anxiety, which is specifically mentioned on my appointment letter, but whatever) and asked me questions so she could fill out paperwork for me. Because my Dutch skills are too low to fill out any of the forms by myself. People are generally very nice about my inability to communicate in their language. Anyway.
I went to the waiting room and a woman came to meet me and explained that she was filling in for whomever I was actually supposed to meet with. She asked me all the stereotypical shrink things while taking copious notes. How did I get along with my mother? My father? What was my childhood like? I told her about coming out in Catholic school. The first girl I kissed. blah blah blah. She wanted to know about my earlier childhood. At home, I played with boys. At school, I played with girls. My parents and grandparents always got me girl toys. I had a collection of Barbies, but found them to be dull. You dress them up? Who cares? Until, one day, my friend Christy from school came over one afternoon and wanted to play with my Barbies. She pulled off their clothes and a bisexual Barbie orgy ensued. Apparently, what you do with Barbies is make them have sex with each other.
“So she taught you how to play with Barbies?” the shrink asked, very seriously. Um, yeah, am I paying for this? Because I suddenly feel like I’m stupidly wasting everyone’s time.
She changed the subject. “So what makes you think you might be -”
“I don’t know.” I cut her off. I said “I don’t know” a lot. She asked me if I would rather talk to a man or a woman. Was this a trick question? If I say woman, then I’m really a lesbian? If I say a man, then, I’m really a man? Which way should I go? Ack. I asked for a fluent English speaker. Then I started coughing and couldn’t stop. I went home and felt crappy and got a fever and was sick in bed on my birthday (I’m 31 now, btw) poor me.
A week or so later, I went back to the same place, still feeling like I had a cold. I met a different woman, the head of the sexology department. She explained that the woman I had talked to previously was no longer employed by PsyQ and since they are having a staff meeting on March 5th to figure out what to do with me, somebody there should have met me in person. I was very careful the whole time not to say the word “transsexual.” (Because I am totally logical.) She asked me a few times the same question that the other woman had asked more than once. Did I have problems during sex? (Problems only in that the ladies can’t get enough of me. heh heh.) I asked her to explain herself. Well, my lack of a penis might make it difficult. (good lord) Then she asked me how I felt about my period. (um, well, questions about it make me feel uncomfortable.) I don’t think I dislike it significantly more than anybody else I know who has it. She asked me why I hadn’t stopped it with birth control. I explained that I really don’t like taking pills or whatever and don’t want to mess too much with things like that unless I have to for some reason. I’ve heard women talking about birth control side fx and stuff and always have felt glad I don’t have to mess with it. Emotional messes. Mojo killing. No thanks. “But it’s possible to stop it. Why don’t you do it?” she pushed. Yeah, but it can make your breasts bigger, I pointed out. She accepted that. She wanted to know why I hadn’t gone to Amsterdam to the university. Hey, I’ve just been going where y’all have been sending me.
I got the vibe that if I had asked for a referral for testosterone, she would have been willing to write one right then. (Actually, normally, they make you get 5 appointments in Amsterdam and then you carry forward. I don’t know if the appointments are to get a note for hormones or for surgery.) She clearly thought I was – that word that I was carefully shying away from. Which, I mean, what did I expect? A pat on the back and a “good for you being genderqueer!”? If I was fine just the way I am, why am I seeing a shrink anyway?
Then she talked to me about what she’s going to recommend they do with me. Anxiety therapy is the first priority.
god help me, I’ll get off Zoloft soon.
I’ve been off school for the last week. No classes! I didn’t go anywhere. I did an application for Birmingham (UK, not AL) and sat around. Today, I had a duo recording with a improv guy from the composition department. I took a deep breath and screamed “I don’t know who I am” as loud and as long as I could, though my tuba. (Metaphor, but not really.) Blat blat blat, I screamed, inhaled, bellowed improperly attacked breathy notes that don’t know where they’re going, what pitch they want to be, how they will resonate, where they are now, what valves are pressed or how much. Wail, blat blat blat.
Afterwards, I felt so much better. I didn’t even know I felt tense, but afterwards, I just felt so like I’d worked something out. so maybe the key to getting off Zoloft is playing loud, angsty tuba? I came home and actually mixed a piece of music. this entailed both me getting Ardour to work and having the attention span to mix something. Tuba is key.
I’m trying to be proactive. I used to tell myself to wait on things. I didn’t need to worry about my mental health problems as long as I could walk and eat and stuff. In the book Breaking Silence, I read about lesbian nuns developing stomach problems from stress and what I got form that was that I could wait until I had stomach problems. Yeah, last summer counted. I always wait like that. I went to a support group for FTMs once in San Francisco. One old guy there said that if you have to transition, eventually you’ll have to. In She’s Not There, Boylan writes of her experience at age 41, just being totally unable to carry on without taking action. I don’t want to be a mess in 10 years. I don’t want to delay and have my first stubble come in grey. I want to deal with this now and take action or put it behind me. I want to move forward from where I am now.
I know that’s it’s not a path of discovery, that it’s a path of creation. I have agency. I apply technologies of the self to create my own identity. It needs to be an identity I can make some peace with. that might require some more therapy. Or more tuba.

Errands in The Hague

Ok, I like some things about The Hague. It reminds me a lot of Middletown, Connecticut, but has many more things going for it. And the music and school communities are both really great. I know a lot of people, I have friends. It’s a good time. And it’s less than an hour to Amsterdam, but in many ways it’s also a small town.

All the sales are going on now. I keep seeing goretex shoes for sale. Some of them are adequately formal to replace my current everyday shoes, which are leaky. So I went into a shoe shop and asked about the shoes I had seen in the window. The shop keeper lead me to the women’s shoes, which were clearly not what I had indicated. I said I preferred men’s shoes. She said that they were often too wide for women’s feet. “I have wide feet.” She took me to the men’s shoes and gave me no information whatsoever about which were waterproof and kept brining me women’s shoes. “How about these?”
I feigned being late to an appointment and escaped. She wasn’t hostile, but she was employing passive resistance. I was not going to succeed in finding what I wanted and lack of respect for my identity gets old really fast. This is the second Sunday in a row in which I’ve failed to run an errand because service employees don’t want to give me access to gendered-male stuff.
On the way to the park with my dog, I noticed an underwear store had a poster up of a woman in boxer briefs shaving her face. She was topless and had long hair and was extremely sexualized in a feminine manner. You know, in case there was any question about whether biology is destiny. Clothes might make the man but feminine is female is inescapable.
I got a bunch of shrink stuff in the mail yesterday. It’s got pamphlets explaining something or other. I can probably guess at what they say, but they’re in Dutch. I could ask somebody to translate them for me, but I’d rather hide under my bed, thanks. I don’t know how this is going to help cure my anxiety, since the paperwork is making me want to flee. Cola says that if I disappear and then call her from a pay phone at a North American airport, she’s keeping the dog. She’s fiendish. I guess flight response isn’t the way to go with this one. Maybe I’ll fight the letter. Or the doctor. That would go over well.
In completely unrelated news, I’ve volunteered to start doing sound FX for a Dutch fan-produced Star Trek. I’m a huge geek. I’ve been wanting to work more with video and this will give me experience. I never thought of myself as a trekkie before, just a viewer, but uh yeah. Lately, I’ve been looking at where my life has taken me (and is taking me) and thinking “How did I get here exactly? Which way is this train going?” I swear if somebody appeared to me ten years ago and said “in ten years time, you will live in Holland, whine about shoe stores to your blog, and be a trekkie.” I would have said, “What’s a ‘blog’?”


Before I begin, I want to clarify that the Dutch are actually pretty ok as far as restroom etiquette goes. Best are the French, then the Dutch, then a tie between Californians and Germans (I think CA might be a teeny bit better) and at the very bottom is Spain. (Also: waa, waa, waa, nobody understands me.) Ok, so on to our story.

I went to see a Dutch shrink on wednesday. Over the summer, I got a book that said that therapy can cure anxiety. Zoloft can also cure anxiety, but it stops working if I stop taking it. Also, it has not been stellar for my concentration. I haven’t written much music since being on it. So a long-term cure that leaves me able to think would be very good.
“Why do you think you are anxious?”
If I knew the answer to that question, I would have a solution already. I dunno. I think there’s something bugging me that I’m not thinking about. When I have something that is really bothering me and I try to ignore it, I tend to have panic attacks. Maybe that’s the cause of all my panic attacks. I don’t know. Lyme disease was pretty stressful. Lack of sunlight might be a problem. I dunno.
I said “I dunno” a lot. She took copious notes and asked extremely open-ended questions. One of them was “how is your identity?” Ok, this was not out of the blue, since I was sort of without one right after I got divorced, but how does one answer such a query?
“Is there anything else?” she asked.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
She noted that it was open ended.
I took a deep breath. “I have a lot of friends who are transexual. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about.”
She started a new page of notes. “You know people who have had The Operation?”
Gah!!! The Operation. What operation would that be, exactly? Would it be the operation where folks take T (or E, since I’ve known folks going both ways) until they pass? Would it be top surgery? Would it be a hysterectomy? Would that be a medioplasty? A phalloplasty?
“Um, I know a guy who had a hysto?”
Did you mother know? Did your ex-wife know? Does your girlfriend know? How long has this been going on?
no. sorta, not really. yes. I dunno, a few years. You know, I’m not at all sure about this.
So you think you are denying your real self and that’s making you anxious and maybe having The Operation would fix that?
What?!! No, I don’t know! Augh!
Would you like to speak with gender specialists in The Hague?
“I don’t know.” I’m all wary now. Outside the window, a gigantic orange cat has climbed to the very top of a barren tree. It’s among the empty branches, looking around. It’s not acting uncertain, but I wonder if it must be stuck, up so high in the tree. Why did it go up there?
“You don’t have to make any decisions. It’s your life, you know. You can just talk about it. It’s an emotionally safe place to talk.”
That’s easy for you to say. I looked at the bookshelf behind her head. It was red and in the shape of a first-aid cross. “Um.”
“They can also help you with anxiety.”
“Ok, I’ll talk to them.”
“Your friends who have had The Operation- are they happy?”
“Um, as far as I know. I dunno.”
“Well, I think we’ve probably covered enough for this session. How do you feel now? Relieved to get everything out?”
No, that’s not exactly how I would describe my mood at all. How does it make me feel to talk about anxiety? It makes me feel fucking anxious!!
I speak virtually no Dutch. Her English skills are probably not high enough to be doing therapy sessions in English. No, I was not relieved. I left and went to class where I was all jumpy.
On the way out, I tried unsuccessfully to explain to the desk person that while I was happy to provide any insurance info they wanted, my insurance specifically excluded treatment for anxiety and regardless, they just reimbursed me for things, so it would be really better if I just paid cash now. The desk person went to ask a supervisor. Out the window behind her, I saw the orange cat running along the top of the fence, like it was on a mission, had a plan, had a place to be.

Twitching Dog

So it kind of alarms that Xena shakes and twitches while lying down. I went to look at a vet website (since my Oakland vet office is closed and it’s late at night here and doesn’t seem like an emergency). Apparently, some twitching can be cured with Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors.

Lovely. I’ve given my dog anxiety. Will I have to share my zoloft with her?
I went out for dinner and left her crated at home, but put on my ipod to keep her company. I chose a text sound playlist, so she would hear people speaking. She really did not want to go in her crate. When I came home,the ipod was making airplane sounds.
Good lord. If anybody has any dog-calming suggestions, I’m all ears.
In completely unrelated news, I spilled granola under my space bar.